Reliability of δ13C and δ15N in faeces for reconstructing savanna herbivore diet
We tested the reliability of herbivore faecal δ13C and δ15N values for reconstructing diet through review of an extensive database derived from a 3-year study of ungulates in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Faeces are a useful material for stable isotope studies of diet because they record dietary turnover at very short time scales, and because sampling is non-invasive. However, the validity of faecal isotope proxies may be questioned because they represent only undigested food remains. Results from Kruger Park confirm that free-ranging browsers have faecal δ13C consistent with C3 feeding, grazer faeces are C4, and mixed-feeder faeces intermediate. Although the respective ranges do not overlap, there is significant variation in faecal δ13C of browsers and grazers (∼2.0–4.0%o) across space and through time. We demonstrate that most (∼70%) of this variation can be ascribed to corresponding patterns of variation in the δ13C of C3 and C4 plants, respectively, re-enforcing the fidelity of faecal isotope proxies for diet but highlighting a need for mixing models that control for variations in plant δ13C in order to achieve accurate diet reconstructions. Predictions for the effects of climate (rainfall) and ecophysiology on15N-abundance variations in mammals do not persist in faeces. Rather, faecal δ15N tracks changes in plant δ15N, with further fractionation occurring primarily due to variations in dietary protein (reflected by %N). Controlling for these effects, we show that a dual-isotope multiple source mixing model (Isosource) can extend diet reconstructions for African savanna herbivores beyond simplified C3/C4 distinctions, although further understanding of variations in mammal δ15N are needed for greater confidence in this approach.
KeywordsBrowser Grazer Kruger Park Mixed feeder Mixing model
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